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On such a high, then such a downer: Can Denny Hamlin get in shape for the season finale?

   A beautiful day in Arizona (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  By Mike Mulhern



    Denny Hamlin, after it was all over, was clearly shaken.
    And title rival Jimmie Johnson – now just 15 points down heading into the Homestead finale -- was playing it for all he was worth, pouring it on.
   And Kevin Harvick, well, he was just relieved to make an almost miraculous recovery after a bad pit stop late, to stay alive in this three-man championship chase, one of the tightest battles in history going into the final race, next weekend.

   For much of the three-hour race, under warm, sunny skies at this dramatically sited westside track, Hamlin was making a rout of it. He rolled up big leads and was all but untouchable.
   But the final 90 miles went green, and the typical gas window, for hard running was maybe 80 miles.
   Thus the tension.
   Harvick, because of that extra stop he'd had to make for a loose lug nut, had enough fuel for sure to make it the distance.
   But Hamlin and Carl Edwards and Johnson were all iffy.
   Edwards and Johnson managed to conserve enough gas with careful driving to finish without an extra stop.
   But crew chief Mike Ford – who only last week chastised Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, for a shocking mid-race pit crew shakeup at Texas – played it conservatively in the final moments, calling for an extra gas stop, under green, to ensure Hamlin had enough fuel to finish.
   That stop – neither Johnson nor Harvick nor Edwards made the extra stop themselves – cost Hamlin the win.
   But it would have been even more devastating if Ford had told Hamlin to conserve fuel...only to have the NASCAR tour points leader run out in the final miles. Afterwards Ford was adamant that Hamlin had to stop, that they didn't have enough fuel to finish.
   And indeed rival Edwards, who wound up winning, had stopped the same time late that Hamlin did, and Edwards' crew had told him he too wouldn't have enough to finish. Even Jack Roush, Edwards' team owner,  said Edwards would be six to 12 laps short.
   But Bob Osborne, Edwards' crew chief, made the gamble to let Edwards run the distance without an extra stop, and Edwards pulled it off.
   "Golden foot," Osborne said afterwards, with an nod and a new nickname for his driver.
   It was the first tour win for Edwards and Osborne since the fall of 2008, and that two-year drought has been painful.
   But in mid-summer Edwards and Osborne went on a sudden tear – not winning but posting the best finishing average over a two-month span that put them in title contention.
   They did make the chase but got shuffled out of the title battle with electrical problems at California last month.
   So the Roush operation turnaround has been coming. Teammate Greg Biffle won Pocono in August, dominated Chicago in July, won again at Kansas, where Roush cars overwhelmed the competition in a striking display.
   But then at California it all fell apart, Biffle following his Kansas win with a blown engine, and engine problems bedeviling his teammates too. Roush said that was part of an attempt to lean the engines out for better fuel mileage, ironically.


  Carl Edwards, in victory (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    For Roush, the win was sweet: "It had been far too long since we'd been in victory circle with Carl.  Everybody expects Carl to win....
    "So Bob and I had been working behind the scenes to try to figure out how to get that to happen.
    "The Ford support for our (computer) simulations has really come into play.  The new FR9 engine certainly was a factor today...at least early on, before we started saving gas.
    "I'm thrilled to be here."
    It's certainly been a long time coming.
    And Roush was, finally, able to laugh about it all:  "First off, what occurs to me is 'Too late smart?'
    "We didn't realize we needed to build something. We thought we finished last year with sufficient momentum to be able to get in this year and do what we needed to do.
   "But early on we figured out the things we tried to predict didn't work, and some of the things we tried to simulate didn't work out as well as they needed to. 
     "We were waiting for our FR9 engine...and we needed a little more work on the aero side."
   Then, just as all those pieces started coming together, up cropped an unexpected nagging problem – a strange vibration in the valve train....which cost Greg Biffle a win at Texas last weekend.
   "We think we've got a handle on the vibrations," Roush says cautiously.
    So now Biffle and Edwards have wins this season, with one race left. Can Matt Kenseth or David Ragan, the other two Roush men, make something happen at Homestead?
   Roush is optimistic about Homestead, where his teams typically shine.
   "We wish the year would not end," Roush said, finally celebrating with Edwards.
  "Unless we stub our toes at Homestead, it's going to end our year on a great note, and that will give us something to go through winter on...even though we can't celebrate a championship.
   "At this point, we're not there, but we'll try to be there next year.  But I think the changes they (NASCAR) have made on the chase are good...and I know they're looking at some other things that might even heighten the excitement more."
    And Roush says he's pleased that patience has paid off for his teams, though a championship isn't in the cards this year. "Based on my experience...and the things that have happened to us in our championship runs that have been unsuccessful, if you make a lunge for life, if you take a desperate chance on something new that you think would be better, it very seldom works out," Roush says ruefully. 
    "You should stay with the people that got you there, and continue to do the things that you have most success with.
    "It's the same advice we give the pit crews before the race: 'Don't just try to do something Herculean....'
    "The same thing applies to the management of the team, I think."


     At last, at long last, after an 0-for-70 stretch of pain and agony, Carl Edwards is back in victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)  

this article

Lets give the 11 team some credit here. If Mike Ford had tried to stretch the fuel mileage and lost, Hamlin would not be leading in the points right now.So,lets be fair, 11 team had everything to loose and the 48 team were desperate. And so was Harvicks team. I think that Johnson and Harvick need to get their teams performing better or the championship will not be theirs. Hamlin and the 11 team are clearly doing what they need to do.

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